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Shuggie Otis Kessler Theater, Dallas, TX October 4th, 2013 Reviewed

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis is a mystery.  The son of a rhythm and blues bandleader that gave the world “Willie and Hand Jive,” Otis started recording at the age of fifteen and released three albums during the 1970s that were a unique quiet storm concoction of blues, rock, funk, and pop.  He received an offer to join the Rolling Stones in 1974, but instead decided to drop out of the music business.  For almost four decades. 

 While best known for “Strawberry Letter 23,” the sonic diversity of the Inspiration Information album continued to draw interest while Shuggie was in his self-imposed exile.  Beyoncé, Outkast, and Digable Planets have sampled his songs, among others. Surprisingly, almost a year ago, Otis began touring again.  (Unless you are Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan, royalty checks won’t be overflowing in your mailbox for eternity).  When U.S. dates were announced earlier this year, I hoped that Otis would perform at the Kessler Theater in Dallas.  Knowing the answer to that aspiration, the next issue is whether my wish fulfillment would meet my expectations.

 First, I must say that Shuggie has assembled one hell of a band.  James Manning might be the best funk bass player on the planet not named Bootsy Collins.  He is phenomenal and kept the dance groove popping all night.  Shuggie’s brother Jon plays the drums, completing an outstanding rhythm section.  Russ “Swang” Stewart provides energetic support on keyboards, guitars, and background vocals, and the band is completed with a three-piece horn section.  Now, he’s where stuff gets weird. Shuggie often seems emotionally detached from the music.  He’s not an authoritative vocalist, his lyrics are well crafted and instantly forgettable, he doesn’t rely on memorable hooks or catchy choruses.  As a guitarist, whether replicating Hendrix style blasts or tossing out rapid-fire blues licks, he generally seems more of a technician than an emotionally engaged artist.  If you stabbed the guy, he’d probably bleed ice pellets. And…none of those limitations or criticisms matter.

Shuggie and his band are so good that their performance completely transcends the material.  The musicians were in control burn mode most of the evening, as they toured through ‘70s funk, Al Green inspired soul, and contemporary blues.  “Wings of Love” had a more traditional pop song appeal, giving the audience, who were enthusiastic throughout the show, a boost of energy.  The energy level kicked into overdrive on “Doin’ What’s Right,” as members of the band unleashed a barrage of brilliant solos.  Shuggie began to loosen up, sounding ironically like Prince on extended guitar arpeggios.  Bassist James Manning got the entire crowd out of their seats with his Dr. Funkenstein dance grooves. By the time Otis played “Strawberry Letter 23” for the encore, the audience had gone from appreciative to rapturous. 

 The lengthy funk jam on “Ice Cold Daydream” sealed the deal.  Everyone knew it was a special evening.  While Shuggie Otis may sometimes seem like the emotionless King of Ambient Funk, he and his band tore the house down. 

  Grade – A 

Setlist: Special   Inspiration Information Aht Uh My Hed  Island Letter  Tryin’ to Get Close to You  Me and My Woman  Sparkle CitySweet Thing  Picture of Love  Wings of Love  Doin’ What’s Right Encore:Strawberry Letter 23  Ice Cold Daydream

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